On the first Thursday of November each year World Digital Preservation Day is celebrated by the global Archive community. This event brings together a wide variety of people and institutions to celebrate all things digital focusing on a different theme each year.
This year’s theme ‘Digits: for Good’, is an opportunity to celebrate the positive impact digital preservation has had in a year which has seen a sudden and global reliance on digital information and infrastructure.
An example of ‘Digits: for Good’ is the hard work, resilience and responsiveness of digital preservation colleagues whose work will enable the research and development used in finding a vaccine for COVID-19 to be preserved, shared and studied; it represents the fact that decision making in the management of the pandemic will be captured for future generations; and it describes the support which will be available to organisations around the world as they work to sustain themselves through this unprecedented time.
Supported by the implementation of new and innovative digital technologies our working practices and spaces have changed in response to the pandemic. The way we create, share and store information and data has changed alongside this. Communication via Teams, virtual meetings, cloud-based storage and data centres have not only made us more resilient, but also present new opportunities for Rothschild & Co and exciting digital preservation challenges for The Rothschild Archive.
The Archive maintains a small collection of ‘obsolete technology’, such as floppy disks, cassette tapes and CDs, not for the information they contain but as examples of how we used to work. The Archive has a programme to migrate the data held on this media to a more stable format as part of our digital preservation policy.
The Rothschild Archive team have been working hard to capture and preserve the history of the business in the digital age. Digital preservation encompasses a series of managed activities that are necessary to ensure digital material is preserved and accessible for as long as it is needed. The digital documents, emails and presentations being created and shared now may one day be deposited in the Archive and we must ensure that we care for and preserve this material to the same high standards we do for the more traditional paper based records. Digital material has both unique inherent risks and similar preservation risks to paper records.
So, what are the risks?
Media and software obsolescence are when the storage media and software become obsolete or no longer supported. File formats and software packages are changing at an increasing rate with new versions releasing, which often means old versions are no longer compatible. How many of you still have computers with a floppy disk drive? Or even a disc drive?
Media Failure – Storage media has a moderately short lifespan. A hard drive has a reliable lifespan of five years which means to keep the data secure it should be refreshed onto new media storage within good time.
Media Decay – All forms of media carriers can decay in different ways. Much like paper files and volumes, digital records also degrade over time and suffer from ‘bit-rot’. When paper records degrade the Archive can create digital surrogates that help to preserve the condition of the original and the information it contains for the long term. With digital records this preservation process becomes more complex as the binary code (the 0s and 1s that make up the bit stream) flips, when flipping occurs a zero becomes a 1 and vice versa. The damage that results from this can be hard to restore and actions must be pro-actively taken to guard against this.
Information at greatest risk
The digital data and information that is categorised as at most risk is that on the internet – the web is ephemeral in nature and much of its content is born digital, in that it lives and dies solely in digital form. Information and news that would have once passed through the office in memo form is now disseminated via the company Intranet. Company memoranda, such as the one shown here, dating from 1959 and detailing administrative procedures of the Investment Department of N M Rothschild & Sons are a thing of the distant past.
The Archivists have begun a Web Archiving initiative which will enable this knowledge and the corporate memory to be preserved. The digital preservation actions and systems we create today will ensure the veracity and evidential value of the digital records we care for in the Archive is maintained long into the future.
000/2659 Obsolete technology
000/2271 Admin & Staff series files: departmental memoranda